By MARINA WATERS
Luke Larkins spends most of his time in the clouds piloting planes. But even when his feet are on the ground, the 20-year-old pilot from Jonesborough is dreaming of the next time he’ll be thousands of feet in the air doing what he loves most.
“It’s like defying the laws of physics really,” Larkins said. “I mean, if you look at our bodies, we’re not meant to fly. We’re not. But when you go up there and defy that, you see what a bird sees and you see what a pilot sees, it’s just one of those out-of-body experiences. You just can’t stop doing it. Once I went up flying that one time, I have been hooked ever since.”
Larkins, who got his pilot’s license two weeks ago, spent a year at Middle Tennessee State University and is now studying aviation mechanics at Northeast State while working on his certifications through Morristown Flying Service. The road to getting his certification hasn’t been an easy one, though. Larkins said he spent many nights studying for his written test and working to eventually take on the wide open skies after months of preparation.
He also said what surprised him the most about becoming a pilot was how much pilots have to know about the weather.
“When I first started, I thought it was just going to be flying. But the weather is a huge factor,” Larkins said. “We actually have charts where we have to calculate the weight and balance of the plane that way we make sure that it’s inside the center of gravity. There’s a reason they call us in-field weathermen. We have to know the weather as well as the weathermen do. You have to know all the types of clouds and everything because otherwise, if we fly into the wrong cloud, we’re dead.”
For Larkins, the skills needed to become a good pilot aren’t simply learned before taking the pilot’s seat; that’s also done while flying.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘A competent pilot flies the plane. A good pilot learns as he flies the plane.’ You learn as you go, even now as a private pilot,” Larkins said. “Even though I don’t have an instructor with me, if I go up there and look around, I look at the clouds, I look at ground reference, interstates, stuff like that. I learn as I fly every single day. It’s a never-ending process of learning. You can never be a perfect pilot, only a better pilot.”
Larkins is considering a future in commercial flying like his cousin or joining the Air Force, which is somewhat of a family tradition for the Jonesborough native.
“It just seems right for me to join,” Larkins said. “My family comes from a long line. On my mom’s side, her brother was in the Marines and he met his wife in the Marines as well and then I have a cousin who is joining the Army right now as well. So I’ve always kind of thought about that.”
No matter where he’s flying off to, Larkins said his home will always be in the mountains of East Tennessee. His family made the move from Paris, Texas, a small town about two hours northeast of Dallas, four years ago when Larkins started his junior year at David Crockett High School and his younger brother, Cade, was a freshman.
“I love this area,” he said. “My mom went to Crockett and University High and my dad went to Boone. We’ve had four or five generations here. We always came back here for Christmas, summers, spring break — this was our vacation. I’ve always known this area and I love this area. It always will be my home. Even if that takes me to Dallas or Atlanta to be stationed, this will still be my getaway to come back and see my family no matter what.”
Family has also become more important to Larkins after a year of college in Murfreesboro. Larkins said he’s thankful for the time he spent playing baseball with Cade, who is a football and baseball standout at Crockett, but coming back home has brought the two together in a way they never experienced before.
“After I left for college, I don’t know what it was, but me and him really became as close as could be,” Larkins said. “When I came back here, you could tell he grew up, I grew up and we started realizing we’re brothers. We aren’t enemies. Back when we were little, we always competed against each other. It was always me verses him. Even when we were 12 and 10, I could tell he was better than me at most things. I honestly was jealous of him. Now I’m proud of him as can be.
“He has something I’ll never have on him and that’s sports. He’s always been great at sports. That’s his thing. But now I have something he’ll never have and that’s flying.”
Now Larkins keeps that competitive spirit going in the air by doing challenges with his instructor to improve his flying skills. But the best part about flying, he said, might just be the mountain views from up above.
“There is nothing like flying through the mountains during the fall. There’s a reason why it’s so congested with pilots right now just in this area,” Larkins said. “Right now in East Tennessee, pilots are flying in just to get a glimpse of the Smoky Mountains with the mist and the fog and the peaks of the fall mountains and the trees.
“I try to go up about 9 or 10 a.m. right as the fog’s lifting. If you stay right underneath the fog, you can see the mountains, especially with the sun shining on them. It’s like nothing else, especially when you’re flying over Cherokee Lake, Douglas Lake, Boone or Watauga, having those backgrounds. Once you get up there you don’t want to leave.”
The Jonesborough pilot doesn’t just fly for the views and the thrill of it. Larkins also takes to the sky when he needs to clear his head. And when it comes to those future decisions, those will most likely be made while he’s high in the sky in his favorite place — the pilot’s seat.
“Whenever I’m in doubt or my mind is clouded over something, I literally hop in a plane and go fly around for an hour or two and I land and I’m a completely different person,” he said. “You get time to think. You just monitor your gauge and make sure everything’s okay and just sit there and think for a bit. I’ll be sitting there and looking out the window looking down at Cherokee Lake and flying over the mountains just thinking to myself about what I’m going to do with my life in the next couple of years. That’s where I’ve made some of my biggest decisions is in a plane. It’s something else.”